How I Learned to Work on Cars

Author Lauren Hough reminisces on the people who were kind enough to show her a few things along the way.
Illustration: G/O Media
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I’ve been working on my van the past couple days, out in the parking lot behind my building. A few of the neighbors, as they come and go, stop to check on the progress. Most are just being polite, making conversation. This is Texas after all; talking to strangers is generally encouraged. I was gone a long time. I forget that. But some are actually interested. They ask where I’m planning on driving, say they’re thinking about getting a van, or reminisce about the time they had a van. One story went back to the ‘80s and involved smuggling bricks of weed.

I really like my building. I’d been worried about working on this thing in the parking lot, worried someone might complain or stand there thinking, “look at this dumbass.” As usual, not the case at all. One of the neighbors has one of those newer Dodge cargo vans. I got the grand tour, which, when you’re talking vans, means standing outside the van while the owner shows you how they solved a lighting problem. She keeps offering to help which I’m all too aware is because the only real fun part of owning a van is this part, when you’re still thinking it could be fun. Okay, the guy who ran bricks across the border did make that part sound fun.

This essay originally appeared on ‘Badreads,’ Lauren Hough’s Substack, and is republished here with permission.

I didn’t make much headway. I meant to drop in a roof fan. I made the hole in the top. And when I got in to check the ceiling, I realized this was going to be a whole thing. I mean I didn’t know what was in the ceiling. From the inside, it looked finished — recessed lights, two rows of vents, and whatever that fuzzy cloth is that they used for car ceilings in the ‘90s/early aughts. I figured I’d see what I was dealing with once I cut a 14-by-14-inch hole in the roof. And I did. What I’m dealing with is a few haphazardly placed sheets of plywood, vents that go nowhere, and a nest of wires taped together at random intervals. So I spent most of the rest of the day cutting it all out.

More of the same today. And because I haven’t yet figured out what I’m doing to replace the ceiling — and by “figured out,” I mean I haven’t spent 20 hours looking at different types of insulation and how to attach studs to fiberglass, or since I just drilled through it for the fan and haven’t sealed those seams yet, what if I switch to longer screws to hold a couple one-bys? Huh. I need to watch a few more Youtube videos clearly.

Anyway I got to a point I could go no further. So I returned to my new hobby. That is — I fuck with these four goddamn bolts in the floor that, after an overnight soak in PB Blaster, will move about a quarter turn an hour. About the time I finally pulled one out… (Holy fuck. I was starting to think I was going to have to cut the heads off and leave them. I’ve been fucking with these bolts since I pulled out the seats a few weeks ago.) Anyway about the time I got one out, along with a spray of rust, a neighbor who walks her cat came to see how I was doing.

I said, “Rust.”

She said, “Well, shit.” Then, “How bad?”

When she’d come home earlier, and asked how it was going on her way in, I’d mentioned I was a little worried about the rust flakes I could see around the bolts. It’s good she showed up again with her cat when she did. I couldn’t throw a wrench and risk scaring a cat. (I maintain that wrench throwing is an entirely appropriate reaction to rust.) She hung out while I cut through the carpet (the reason I have to get these bolts out: I want to replace the carpet with something easier to clean). I pulled back a good patch, and did the only thing you can do when you find rust on your floorboards, which is, you fuck with it. I poked at it with a screwdriver, flicked a little more away, cut out a little more carpet and stabbed around the floorboard with the screwdriver and told her, I think it’s okay. It’s just a small hole and the rest of this feels solid.

I had no idea if it was okay. But while I was poking around, I was thinking about all the cars I’ve ridden in with rusted-out floorboards. All the cars with bondo patches. All the people I’ve known who’ve bought old-ass rust buckets. It seemed like there must be a way to patch it. It wasn’t the frame. Just the sheetmetal.

My neighbor — whose cat by the way spent this entire time exploring the van. Better than a walk, according to the cat — my neighbor asked, “How do you know all this stuff?”

I said, I don’t. I explained about the rust buckets and floorboards and how I just assume there’s a way to fix this. I told her it’s basically a lot of Youtube. I said I don’t know. Maybe it’s just if you never have any money, you do what you have to do. She looked doubtful and I thought, I’m full of shit. So I told her, “I’m full of shit. The thing is, people showed me a few things and it gave me a little confidence to do this kind of thing.”

I used to watch my dad whenever he had to fix something, which, the way we lived, was always. He’d see me standing there instead of playing with the other kids and he’d hand me a hammer, show me how to hold it, how to start a nail with little taps. Never got angry when I missed and hit his thumb. When I was maybe five, he showed me how to remove the trap under the sink. Same year he taught me how to ride a bike. Same year he taught me how to kick start a car off the clutch. Same year he taught me how to use a hand saw. He never really did worry about what jobs were age or gender appropriate. I wanted to know how, he’d show me. And he’d let me do it.

When I lived at my grandma’s in Amarillo, we had a neighbor, Mr. Harrison. I’d take up the same tactic that always got my dad to show me something — stand there and ask questions. Mr. Harrison had served in Korea, gruff old Marine with the best lawn on the block, which is saying something in Texas where lawn maintenance is almost as important as football. I was seven when he taught me how to change a tire. I couldn’t do most of the work but he let me start the lug nuts. Then he showed me how to change the oil. He had a cool trick — cover the oil filter with a Solo cup and it’ll catch the spill. Now you know that one too.

My Uncle Terry, who grew up on a farm and left as soon as he could, reminded me a lot of my dad. They both loved Jim Croce. They’d both crank up Motown and get us all dancing in the living room. And, like my dad, he could fix anything. Uncle Terry let me smooth the concrete when he put in some steps to the back patio. He let me use his grease gun to oil hinges.

My stepdad couldn’t fix shit. I remember that as an item on the long list of ways he wasn’t as cool as my real dad. He used to randomly go out and inspect my car. Not as a protective thing, or it sure as shit didn’t feel like it. It was always a list of things I needed to do that would cost me money I didn’t have.

I told my boyfriend I had to get my car winterized. My stepdad had said so. My boyfriend, who took shop, said the hell does that mean? I said I don’t know but I checked, it’s $75 at the place on Western. I remember that price because my entire life’s savings from my Taco Villa job was $80. My boyfriend came over with some tools and a jug of antifreeze. He showed me how to check the antifreeze and said, there ya go, winterized. My stepdad came out to argue with him. Said I needed a professional. John threw a bunch of car terms at him, interspersed with a lot of “sir” and “ripoff,” the only two words my stepdad could understand and respect, and my stepdad backed down. Later, he showed me how to change the headlights and the air filter.

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Seems like a few small things, looking back. But not every guy is willing to take the extra time to show you how to do something, to let you do it so you know you can. I’ve been explained to and told it’s dangerous while I watched and knew someone showed that guy, why couldn’t he show me? I’ve been told girls don’t need to know how. I’ve been told this is guy stuff. But every so often, a Mr. Harrison or an Uncle Terry or a John would see I wanted to know how, and take the time to show me. It mattered to me. And I try to pass it on.

When I was living in Santa Fe, I volunteered with a few friends building houses for Habitat for Humanity. I’d joined this meetup group for queer women and this was one of the activities. Right away, I was deemed sort of experienced and allowed to use the chop saw. A chop saw’s one of those things that looks intimidating and guys try to use it for you so you don’t hurt your little hands. In reality it’s easier than most stations on a construction site, and it’s kind of fun, so why not pretend you’re the only one who knows how? Now you don’t even have to haul studs back and forth.

I was cutting a few studs and one of the girls handed me hers and said the length she needed. And I recognized that look. I said, “Do you want to do it? It’s easy.” She looked a little uncertain so I said, “If you can close a car trunk without smashing your fingers, you can do this.” Another girl showed up, same thing. And another. Basically it turned into an older lesbian teaching a bunch of younger lesbians who always really wanted to do this shit. Next we learned the nail gun, also fun as shit. Granted this meant that since I wasn’t the only one who knew how to do the fun things, I was stuck hammering studs. But that’s why guys never show you how.

I got a random message from one of the group when my book came out. It was a lot about the book and dogs. But at the end, “Remember when you showed me how to use a chop saw? We talk about that sometimes. I really wanted to do it because it looked fun but they put all the girls on the boring jobs like they always do.” I knew what she meant. Like I said, a few people were kind enough to show me a few things and it means I know I can do them. It mattered.

I guess my point here is, if you ever see a little tomboy hanging around while you’re checking your oil or whatever, do her a favor and show her how. It means something.

Lauren Hough is the New York Times bestselling author of Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing. Her work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, Huffpost, and Texas Highways. She lives in Austin.